SEOUL: South Korean writer Han Kang’s Booker prize marks a major victory for a decade-long effort to drag one of Asia’s oldest but, until recently, least-known literary traditions into the global market.
Literary merits aside, the success of Han’s novel “The Vegetarian” was aided by a number of factors that have coincided with South Korea’s emergence as an increasingly prominent player on the global cultural stage.
An institute dedicated to translating new works, a fresh breed of writers with a more international outlook and a new generation of talented, dedicated translators have all played their part — and, publishing insiders say, will all share in Han’s triumph.
“It’s going to have an enormous impact,” Seoul-based independent literary agent Joseph Lee said.
“For the writers, it will provide motivation and confidence that our literature has potential in the overseas market.
“For the publishers, it will push them to focus on discovering good writers and strong works and to approach the foreign market with a clear strategy,” Lee told AFP.
Han shared the £50,000 ($72,000, 63,500 euro) cheque that accompanied the Man Booker International Prize with her British translator Deborah Smith.
Described as “lyrical and lacerating” by chairman of the judges Boyd Tonkin, “The Vegetarian” traces the story of an ordinary woman’s rejection of convention from three different perspectives.
A dearth of capable translators, coupled with an equally limited number of works suitable for foreign readers, had long stymied efforts to find a wider audience for Korea’s literary output.
“Korea is a high-context culture, with every Korean sharing a deep social, cultural, philosophical knowledge that can make its literature impenetrable to outsiders,” said Charles Montgomery, who runs the website Korean Literature in Translation.
A former professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, Montgomery said selecting works for translation used to be done by government officials who favored classic, representative fiction that fitted a national narrative but had little to no appeal for foreign readers.
This changed with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI), which was set up in 1996 but only came into its own in the past 10 to 15 years, with an annual budget of $10 million and 80 employees.
Although still a government body, the LTI has championed new writers and, crucially, allowed translators to choose the books they would like to work on.
“LTI has really opened the door to an awesome generation of new translators, and made it possible for them to come to Korea and study their craft,” Montgomery said.
The institute also holds annual workshops, flying in foreign publishers and editors from the United States, Russia, Japan, Singapore and Britain.
LTI president Kim Seong-Kon has lofty ambitions, stating in an interview in 2012 that it was “about time” a Korean writer won the Nobel literature prize.
For some time, South Korea has looked, with a degree of envy, at the international celebrity of authors like Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk or Japan’s Haruki Murakami.
Like Japan in the 1970s and 80s, the country is now riding something of a cultural wave with the growing visibility and popularity overseas of its TV dramas, pop music, cinema and food.
“Literature perhaps is the last piece of that,” said Montgomery.
The first breakthrough came in 2012, with the Man Asia Literary Prize awarded to Shin Kyung-Sook’s “Please Look After Mom”.
Some conservative Korean critics sniffed at Shin’s success, arguing that her novel was overly sentimental and shamelessly targeted a foreign readership.
Tearing up the rulebook
Han’s translator Smith said a traditional Korean reverence for intellectualism had proved a heavy burden and a barrier to innovation and experimentation.
“It produced somewhat austere prescriptions as to what constitutes ‘proper’ literature — a rulebook that the younger generation have been all too happy to tear up,” Smith wrote in the latest issue of the Asia Literary Review quarterly.
The Korean literary establishment still expects writers to follow a well-worn career path, starting with a “debut” short story published in one of a handful of influential literary journals.
The literary gatekeepers are, according to Smith, “too often older, male critics” whose tastes are firmly rooted in the 1970s and who struggle with the character-driven, direct-experience narratives of younger writers.
“Despite all the dynamics surrounding contemporary Korean literature, one thing seems certain: the tide has well and truly turned,” Smith said.